“A Record To Be Proud Of”
November 03, 2010, 4:00am

The Progress Report

Regardless of what happens in the voting booths today, the 111th Congress will be coming to an end. According to polls, many people — in fact, most Democrats — may be happy to see it go: a recent Pew and National Journal survey shows that only one-third of Democrats think this Congress achieved more than recent congresses, while 60 percent think it has achieved the same or less. Unfortunately, this perception is divorced from reality. The 111th Congress has been easily one of the most productive congresses in American history, having passed major reforms of health care, the financial sector, and the student loan industry, while also pumping a massive stimulus bill into the economy that helped save or create millions of jobs. The New York Times described this Congress as one whose accomplishments rival “any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition.”

A FOCUS ON ECONOMY: When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gaveled in the 111th Congress in January 2009, the country faced severe problems, none more pressing than a cratering economy. The unemployment rate had skyrocketed since 2007 with no signs of relenting, and the private sector needed a jump start. In its first month, the 111th Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Obama quickly signed into law. The non-partisan CBO found that the bill created 3.7 million jobs, and GDP and manufacturing have both grown steadily over the past year. The bill also included significant tax cuts. The Tax Policy Center found that the tax cuts contained in the stimulus bill saved an average of $1,179 for 96.9 percent of U.S. households in 2009. Congress later passed, and Obama signed, the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which cut taxes by $12 billion for small businesses and leveraged $300 billion in private sector lending for small businesses. Congress also passed — and Obama signed — a $26 billion jobs bill to save over 300,000 teachers, police, and other public workers from layoffs. Congress provided additional stimulus for the economy with the Hire Act, which created up to 300,000 jobs by starting a payroll tax holiday and other tax credits for businesses that hire unemployed workers, and with an extension to unemployment benefits for those still unable to find work in a tough economy. Aside from these major steps to jump-start the economy, the 111th Congress also reformed several dysfunctional institutions. The Affordable Care Act transformed the country’s health care system, by reforming health insurers’ discriminatory practices, expanding Medicaid coverage, and income-based help for health care, and creating health insurance exchanges where consumers can shop for high-value coverage. The Wall Street reform bill ended taxpayer-funded bailouts of large financial institutions, created numerous regulations to prevent irresponsible behavior by such institutions, and created the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection to serve as a Wall Street watchdog. The 111th Congress also reformed the student loan industry by passing a bill that marked the largest investment in college aid in history: it increased Pell Grants, strengthened community colleges, and ended wasteful subsidies to private lenders. The bill is expected to pump $100 billion into the economy thanks to the increased earnings of new students who can take advantage of the reforms. Congress also passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored basic protections against pay discrimination towards women.

THE LITTLE THINGS MATTER: While these issues — the stimulus measures, and reforms of the health insurance, financial, and student loan industries — received much national attention, there were myriad other small acts that went largely unnoticed but figure to create significant improvements for many Americans. For example, the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights created significant protections against deception and abuse by credit card companies. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act tripled volunteerism opportunities and increased college financial awards. The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act guaranteed access to medications and care for low-income patients with AIDS and HIV. The U.S. Manufacturing Enhancement Act lowered or eliminated duties on some materials that are not made domestically, so that American manufacturers can compete with foreign manufacturers. For Americans that fly commercial airlines, the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act provides improved passenger safety via stronger training requirements for commercial pilots. Congress also passed a bill authorizing the FDA to regulate the advertising, marketing, and manufacturing of tobacco products, which are the leading cause of preventable U.S. deaths.

STILL WORK TO BE DONE: While these measures are no doubt significant, the 111th Congress is leaving a lot of runners on base, with further work to be done on issues such as climate change and immigration reform. The House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, also known as the cap-and-trade bill, which would have provided a marketplace in which to regulate dangerous carbon emissions while creating 1.7 million jobs and helping free America from dependence on foreign oil. The Senate has not acted on that bill. The House also passed bills that would have eliminated a liability cap on the damages BP faces for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and that would have given the BP Oil Spill Commission subpoena power to investigate what went wrong. There is still a bill to create a public option for health insurance on the table, for which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has promised a vote. Also, the Senate and the House have yet to take action to pass the DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform, a promise Obama ran on in 2008. The House also passed the Disclose Act, which would prohibit foreign entities and government contractors from influencing American elections, while establishing extensive disclosure rules for political contributions. Two bills in the House, the Jobs for Main Street Act and the Small Business & Infrastructure Jobs Act, would create significant investment in American infrastructure through redirection of TARP funds and by increasing bonds and tax breaks for infrastructure development. All of these issues await action by the 112th Congress, which has large legislative shoes to fill, despite what the polls say.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said yesterday that “he has no regrets about saying the GOP’s top priority over the next two years will be to make Barack Obama a one-term president.” Democrats had attacked McConnell for suggesting that politics would be his priority over jobs or health care, but McConnell dismissed the charge as “laughable.”

The New York-based private research group Conference Board released a handbook on corporate political activity “urging corporations to establish strong internal controls and oversight over political donations” after Target Corp. was criticized for backing a GOP candidate in Minnesota. The report’s co-author says that corporate political activity has increased since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

While the 2010 season garnered almost $4 billion in “unregulated, often secret campaign money” that “sharply increased the power of wealthy individuals and groups on both the right and left,” the spending trend is “expected to grow as the 2012 presidential campaign begins.” After Citizens United, political groups are calling the influx of spending “the new normal.”

“Even though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been among the most active outside groups trying to influence the midterm elections, the prominent business organization is likely to fall short of its ambitious spending goal of $75 million.” Yesterday, the Chamber announced it had spent $32.4 million on electioneering and communications activities, almost all of which targeted Democrats and supported Republicans.

With one judge dissenting, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the government Monday to block a lower court’s ruling that the military’s DADT policy is unconstitutional. The lawyer for Log Cabin Republicans, the gay rights group that filed the lawsuit against DADT, said “the appeal would continue and he raised the possibility of seeking emergency relief from the nation’s highest court.”

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Noonan Jr. “expressed deep skepticism” yesterday “about a Justice Department lawsuit challenging Arizona’s new immigration law, leaving uncertain the Obama administration’s chances of stopping the law from taking effect.” Noonan doubted the government’s argument that the Arizona law is “preempted” by federal law in this case.

General Motors “will succeed in shrinking the federal government’s ownership stake to less than 50 percent in a $10.6 billion initial public offering later this month.” “G.M.’s market value could approach $60 billion,” following a restructuring of the company’s stocks.

The Transportation Security Administration revealed that only 20 percent of the “9 billion pounds of air cargo that comes from overseas each year is physically checked for bombs.” The security system for cargo is “under scrutiny following last week’s plot to sneak bombs into U.S.-bound planes using cargo packages sent from Yemen.”

And finally: As voters head to the polls today, one largely unnoticed election in Colorado could (though almost certainly will not) determine the fate of all humankind. Voters in Denver will consider a ballot measure to set up a commission to track space aliens, and allow residents to submit UFO sightings on the new Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission website. Sponsor Jeff Peckman says the government is tracking aliens, but refuses to make the reports public.